It’s human nature to want, then get, then want some more. All those shiny things that come into our lives can dull over time. The new gets old. That’s been proven true many times over in my life except for a few precious things. Today is one of those things.
My newest novel is released today—that makes number four, which just so happens to be four more books than I ever thought I’d get the opportunity to write.
The Devil Walks in Mattingly should be available everywhere. It’s a great story, and my favorite so far.
Below I’ve posted links to where you can pick up a copy, just in case you’re in need of something new to read. And as always, I thank each and every one of you who take the time to visit my little cyber cabin in the mountains. None of what I do would be possible without you. Cross my heart and hope to die.
I blame the writer in me for the messes I sometimes get myself into, all of which I tell myself were begun with the best of intentions. Label something as “research,” for instance, and a writer can give himself permission to do almost anything. “Education” is another good example. We should always be learning something, growing, both in mind and in heart: becoming both better and more.
That thought was running through my head several times over the course of the past couple of weeks, when I decided to sit down to watch three of the most celebrated television shows to have come along in a while. The writing is spectacular, I heard. The ideas immense. Deep characters. Deeper mysteries. All things that appeal to me in my own work. The best way to improve your own craft is to immerse yourself in the craft of others. That’s what I was thinking when I sat down to watch marathons of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.
If you’ve yet to see any of these shows or only a couple, I’ll say they are at their core the same thing: Broken people doing some very bad things. Their worlds could not be more dissimilar—the monotony of suburbia, a feudal Dark Age, the stark backwater of the south. And yet the view of each of those worlds is much the same in that each show portrays the world as ultimately meaningless and empty, therefore power is the only means to safety. The critics I’d read and the friends who had recommended those shows were indeed right. The writing really was spectacular, the ideas really were immense. The characters were layered. A few of the mysteries were nearly imponderable.
But still: yuck. After all of that, I needed a shower.
Here’s the thing, though: given bits and pieces of those shows, I don’t think it really would have been a problem. I’m no prude when it comes to entertainment; I’ll admit I sometimes enjoy my share of a gray worldview, though I’d much rather see it from my sofa than in my own life. But immersing yourself in it? Watching over and over until it seeps into the deepest places inside you? Well, that’s a different thing all together.
Yet that’s our culture now, isn’t it? There really doesn’t seem to be any hope out there, whether it’s in music or television or literature. There was maybe a time when the arts existed to prod society onward, to inspire and lift up. More often than not, they now serve as a mirror, showing what we’ve become in a series of melodies or flashing frames. Television, movies, music, and stories have grown increasingly dark because we’ve grown increasingly dark, not the other way around.
The other day, I came across an article written by a neuroscientist that affirmed much of what our mothers once told us: garbage in, garbage out. The article cautioned great care in the sorts of stories we allow ourselves to be exposed to, whether it’s the nightly news fare of war and recession and political meanness, or whatever slasher film is playing down at the local movie theater. Because those stories all carry meanings, and those meanings will, consciously or not, impact the way in which you view life and the world around you for good or bad. If you don’t know how to draw something positive out of what happens in life, the neural pathways you need too appreciate anything positive will never fire.
That’s evolution, the neuroscientist said. Maybe. I’d call it human nature.
It’s easy to succumb to the notion that everything is random, meaningless. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world is too big and too far gone to ever be able to make a difference in it. The key is not to rise above, but merely survive (which, by the way, is my theory of why the zombie culture is so prevalent now). What’s hard is to believe. What’s hard is to carry on. It is to find purpose in where you are and in what you’re doing, no matter how insignificant it seems. It is to find dignity in this thing we call life, and to bring beauty to it.
To a certain extent, ritual plays a part in every life. We all adhere to our own ceremonies to mark the important occasions that come along. It can be something as extravagant as a neighbor of mine plans every Thanksgiving, when his home becomes a meeting place for family scattered to all corners of the country. Or it can be as small as the shot of whiskey a friend of mine takes at 4:12 in the afternoon each July 27, in remembrance of his father’s passing.
My own ritual—smaller than either of those I mentioned, yet to me no less significant—revolves around cleaning out my desk before the start of every novel. It is no mammoth undertaking, usually requiring no more than an hour’s time and involving no more than shelving books and filing papers. But I like to start fresh with each story I write, and nothing says fresh more than an empty slab of oak upon which to write.
As I cleaned and filed and shelved this morning, I came upon a tattered manila envelope at the bottom of a stack of papers. ANSWERS had been written diagonally across the front in red permanent ink, in a hand I can scarcely recognize now. The inside bulged with notes and scraps; newspaper clippings; magazine articles; letters written to me and copies of letters I’d written to others. Some were dated as recent as last year. The oldest had 4 Oct. 89 scrawled along the top.
I spread them out before me, reading each one until I remembered, trying to place the where and why of myself—what it had been that led me to include those stories there, in my envelope. I am not to the point that I can say I have lived many years upon this earth, have accumulated many things along the way, and yet I have always counted that envelope among my most important possessions. Because, what you see, what rests in there are all the questions I wish to ask God when I am able to see Him face to face. They are the things I wish to know.
I will stop short of calling that envelope EVIDENCE FOR PROSECUTION, though I admit it was very nearly labeled that instead of ANSWERS. And whom was I determined to prosecute, way back in the very dawn of my adulthood? God, of course. And for the single reason that I did not approve of the way He did things.
Laugh at that all you will. Take a look inside my envelope, though. You may change your mind.
You’ll see an obituary for a high school classmate of mine, who was killed in a freak accident not two years after our graduation—a bright, funny, loving boy, full of life until he wasn’t.
You’ll find a story of a missionary tortured and killed.
A small girl who wandered from home and became lost in the woods, never to be found.
A single mother of three, dying of inoperable cancer.
Accounts of oppression, disease, and injustice. Diary entries of heartbreak and doubt. Themes of death and evil. Tales that over the years forced me to wonder what you or anyone else have wondered at one time or another—
How can a good and loving God allow such things?
At a certain point, I understood there would be no answers to that question on this side of life. People have been questioning the origins of evil and it’s place with God for thousands of years, and we are not too far down the road to answering it. So I’ve kept all my questions here, in this envelope.
How exactly I would get that file to heaven with me was something I never quite figured out. In the past few years, I’ve devoted less and less time to pondering that problem. Not because evil no longer bothers me—it does, perhaps more now than ever—but because of the very likely possibility that I won’t care much about my questions in heaven. I’ll be too full of joy. I’ll be too busy spending time with all those who passed on before me, and preparing for those yet to arrive.
I still don’t understand a great many things in life. I suppose I always won’t. I don’t know why there must be cancer, and why that cancer must take so many innocent people. I don’t know why there is evil, or why there seems to be so much more of it than good.
I don’t know why God does the things He does, or allows what He allows.
But I can do one thing. I can approach those questions now as though they were parts of a story, one I would write just as God writes His own upon all of creation. And I would say—not as a pastor or theologian or philosopher, but as a storyteller—that it is far more beautiful a thing to be redeemed than be innocent. It is far more amazing for fight for peace in a fallen world than to maintain peace in a perfect one.
And it is far more noble to spend your life in search of something than have nothing to search for at all.
She walked up to me at the end of church last Sunday, one wrinkled hand stretched out in search of my own. Her woolen coat was already cinched and her hat pulled down tight, leaving only a wisp of white curls jutting out the sides. She smiled, and I noticed her teeth were too straight and too white to be her own.
“I’ve just read your latest novel,” she said, and then she patted my hand.
I grinned. “Really? Well, thank you, ma’am.”
“Don’t thank me.” Still smiling. “I didn’t like it at all.”
She kept her hand in mine and squeezed, wanting to reassure me that all was still right in the world.
“I see.” It was all I could think to say. “I’ll have to try better next time.”
“I read your first book. Snow Day. That was wonderful.”
“Such a nice story. Almost like a Hallmark movie. Have you ever thought of doing a Hallmark movie?”
“I don’t think that’s up to me,” I said.
“But this last one…” She made a face. It was all sadness and misery. But it hid her teeth, and for that I was grateful. “I just don’t know what’s happened. This last book? Awful. Too much heartache. And the characters? The bad ones were good and the good ones bad, and I never knew who was right and who was wrong. And the deaths. Awful, awful stuff. How could you write something like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just kind of came to me, I guess.”
“You were always such a good boy. I’ll pray for you.”
“Can always use that, ma’am.”
“Good. Now you go write something like Snow Day. What a lovely book. There was no blood.”
She walked on, tackling the last button on her coat as she did, then tucking her Bible under her arm as she shook the preacher’s hand and then walked into the cold outside. I stood there alone and grabbed my own Bible, trying to find my family and my thoughts.
She was right, you know. There was no blood in my first novel. There was some in my second. A bit more in my third. I suppose I could have told her my next book will be out in March and is called The Devil Walks in Mattingly, but I think that would have only decreased her respect and increased her prayers. I wondered if that kind old lady would read that book. I hoped so and kind of didn’t.
When my first novel came out in 2010, I felt as though I had reached a distinct midpoint in my life. The same world that so often had played out in front of me full of disappointment and despair brightened in the sharp light of hope. I had crawled through the valley. Climbed the mountain.
I felt born again, again.
That feeling hasn’t lessened. Every novel I write is to me a miracle, evidence that God isn’t quite done with me yet. It still sometimes feels like I’m crawling through a valley and climbing a mountain. The only difference is that at the top of that mountain there is always another, higher one, and another, deeper valley. But that’s life for all of us. Those joys we feel, the days of contentment and peace? Those things are merely the peaks upon which we stand and rest before continuing on our long journey to a land we cannot see but can only feel.
After standing on so many of those peaks, I suppose a part of me changed. My writing certainly did. I am a product of my environment, of a small town and blue mountains and dark hollers and folktales of ghosts and angels, brimstone and grace. Between you and me? I sort of ran from that at first. I wanted books that were easy and inspiring. No pain. No hurt. No loss.
Not anymore, though. And ironically enough, it was church that convinced me otherwise. It was my faith. It was that kind old woman’s faith. It was faith in a book we believe is the very Word of God, a book of stories about a serpent bringing ruin; a baby left to float down the Nile in a basket; a lowly shepherd boy facing a giant. A book about a righteous man suffering much for no reason and a prophet being swallowed alive by a whale. Of cities destroyed and countries enslaved. A savior hung to die on a cross. Heartache and blood.
Not easy stuff to read. But real stuff. Stuff that matters a great deal.
Next time, I’ll tell her that.
It’s amazing how many conversations I have with people that end up with them saying, “Well, I’m working on a book, too.”
I met one such person at the local bookstore last week. Nice fella. Rooting around the reference section and about to pick up a copy of On Writing, by Stephen King. We got to talking. Sure enough, he’s a writer. Has two manuscripts sitting in the top drawer of his desk back home. Funky stories, full of zombies and whatnot. They’re good, he promised. I didn’t doubt they were. He has dreams of agents and publishers and auctions and signings, all of which will happen as soon as he sends those manuscripts off. That’s the problem. He can’t seem to get either of them out of the drawer.
I nodded. He explained that deep down, he’s afraid an agent or editor just won’t understand the depths of his writing. I nodded again. Happens all the time, he said, and then he held up the book in his hand and asked if I knew how many times King had been rejected before he made it big, or Grisham, or Rowling. I said I didn’t but guessed it was a lot. He nodded gravely and whispered, “Oh yeah. A LOT. I can’t handle that, dude.”
He bought the book. Saw him in line a little while later, thumbing through the first few pages and nodding as he soaked up Mr. King’s words.
I couldn’t really think bad of him. I was that man once. I think we all are in a way. Doesn’t matter who we are or how old we happen to be, we all have dreams. We might not act upon them, but they’re there. We have all at some point sat in the middle of our lives, looked around, and said, “There’s gotta be more than this.” That’s my theory—none of us really want a lot, we just want a little more than what we have.
But the thing is this: often, that little more we want requires a lot. A lot of risk, a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice. In the end, that’s what separates the ones who manage to reach their goals from the ones who don’t. Sure, talent plays a part. But talent can only get you so far. My friend in the bookstore may be the next Tolstoy, but none of us will ever know. Writing is easy. It’s sending it out into the world that’s hard. It’s wanting it bad enough. And when I come across people like that, I think of Wayne.
I met Wayne years ago at the boxing gym. Huge guy, hands as fast as lightning. While the rest of us were there to get in shape and occasionally get the snot beaten out of us, Wayne had higher aspirations. He wanted to turn pro. And he wanted it bad.
Trained every day. Fought as often as he could. He racked up wins and knockouts, took on ranked opponents, climbed the ladder. His dedication was inspiring. Having him there made me work harder and sweat more. There was no doubt in my mind he’d make it.
Wayne worked construction during the day, said it kept him in shape. He was two months away from the biggest fight of his amateur career when an accident mangled the ring finger of his right hand. The doctor said he’d need surgery, followed by a few weeks of rest. And absolutely, positively no training.
The fight would have to be cancelled. No telling how long it would be to reschedule. Wayne’s dream of turning pro hung in the balance. So he did what he had to do.
He cut his finger off.
Nope, not kidding. Did it himself in his garage one evening. Trained left-handed for the next week, had his fight. He won.
That’s what it takes to succeed. It’s the only way. Doesn’t matter if it’s writing or boxing or college or a new career. You have to want it, and then you have to go get it with a mindset that says you’ll get up every time you’re knocked down. You won’t surrender. Ever forward, never back.
Even if it means losing pieces of yourself along the way.
“Can you help me?”
A common enough question in the course of my workday as a college mailman. Asked by the old and the young alike, but mostly the young. And I am generally in a well enough mood to reply Yes, I certainly can help you, even if I am generally not in a well enough mood to be excited about the prospect. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied career of postal delivery to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds, it’s that they often need a lot of help. A LOT.
So, just a bit ago—“Can you help me?”
Young lady, nineteen-ish. I pegged her as a junior. Not because I knew anything at all about her, but because I’ve been here long enough to be able to guess such things with a modicum of accuracy. It was the way she dressed—pajama bottoms and a raggedy sweatshirt, which told me she’d been here long enough to not care anymore but no so long that she understood it just may be time to start growing up a little—and the way she addressed me—in the eye. She’d laid the envelope, pen, and stamp on the counter in front of her. When I walked up, she was staring at all three as if they were all pieces to some exotic puzzle.
I asked what sort of help she needed, which could have been anything from needing a zip code to how much postage was needed to mail something to China. But no, neither of those.
Instead, she said, “I don’t know how to mail this.”
“Just fill it out,” I told her. “I’ll mail it for you when you’re done.”
“No. I mean, I don’t know . . . how.”
“How to what?”
“You know. Like, fill this out.”
She pointed to the envelope and stared at it. I stared at it, too. Because I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You mean,” I asked, “you don’t know how to address an envelope?”
“You mean, No, that’s not it? Or do you mean, No, I don’t know how to address an envelope?”
Now she looked at me. Her brow scrunched. I got the image of her seated in some classroom desk, trying to split the atom.
“I don’t know how to address an envelope,” she said.
I’ll be honest—it took me a while. Not to show her how to address an envelope (which, as it turned out, took much, much longer than a while, took what felt like an eternity), but for what this young woman told me to finally sink in. She really didn’t know how to address an envelope. Had no idea where to put the stamp, where to write her home address (it was a card, she said, to her mother) and not only where to write the return address, but what a return address was.
Nineteen years old. Junior in college. I can assume this young lady was bright, or else she wouldn’t be in college. And resourceful. And driven. Capable, too—she whipped out her iPhone and danced through so many apps to find her mother’s address that it nearly gave me a seizure. But when it came to something as commonplace as sending a letter? Nothing.
“Nobody sends letters anymore,” she told me. “It’s so 1800s.”
She finished her envelope and affixed the stamp (after being told where that went, too). I had to sit down for a bit afterward. My head was killing me.
Now I’m thinking:
Is this really where we’ve come? Have we really raised a generation of children who are so dependent upon technology that anything without a button is an unsolvable mystery?
But there’s something more as well, something far worse. In our instant world of texts and emails and Facebook posts and tweets, that poor girl has missed out on one of the true pleasures of life. She has never sat at a quiet desk with paper and pen to write a letter. She has never pondered over the words that have leaked through her hand and fingers, never slowed enough to find the rhythm of her words and her heart. She has never felt the trepidation of folding those words (and her heart) into thirds and stuffing them in an envelope sealed with her own saliva—her own DNA—and placing it in a mailbox. Never worried that her letter maybe wouldn’t get to where it was meant to go. Never felt the exhilaration of finding a sealed reply waiting for her days or weeks later.
Give me the new, the world says. Give me the shiny and the bright. I say take it. I’ll keep my paper and pen.
Let’s start over.
Growing up, there was a cornfield across from my house. On the other side of that was the railroad track that cuts through town. The train still comes through twice a day. More, if the freight is good. I remember standing on my front porch as those trains rolled through, staring at the open doors on all those empty container cars, wondering where that train was going. How long it would take to get there. How easy it would be to hop on.
I wanted to see the world. Chuck it all. Run away. I wanted to leave home and see the country.
Never happened, of course. But it did for Allison Vesterfelt. She left her home in Portland at age 26 with a friend, some bags, and a single plan—to visit all 50 states. The chronicle of her adventure (and that’s what it turned out to be) is found in her book, Packing Light.
Ally’s book caught me. She tells her story with a refreshing honesty, including just how frightening it can be to do something extraordinary. Imagine leaving everything behind—your job, your home, your family—and lighting out into the territory. Thrilling? Yes. Scary? Absolutely.
And yet Ally did it anyway, and on the other side found blessings that will comfort her for the rest of her life. That, really, is what this book is about—the lessons she learned along the way.
Things like embracing the unexpected. Changing your expectations. Losing your way. Choosing your path. Hers is a reminder that the great and mighty More a lot of us want in life really won’t bring us happiness. Most times, the peace we crave comes in having less.
“Knowing how valuable you are,” she writes, “and acknowledging your tiny role in a larger story is a difficult balance to strike. It’s easy to see one or the other, but it’s difficult to hang on to both at the same time. It stretches us, like a kid reaching for the next rung of a monkey bar, until eventually we find our arms stretched out wide.”
To me, that’s the best part of what Ally accomplished. Like all adventures, she went looking for the world and found herself.
Packing Light is a great read, and I highly recommend it. To learn more, visit the Packing Light page on Amazon.
A thousand words sounds like a lot more than it really is. It’s just about two double-spaced pages or one single-spaced, depending upon the amount of dialogue or length of paragraphs.
It’s also my daily writing quota. A thousand words a day, seven days a week. Doesn’t matter if that thousand words is a blog post or a chapter in a book or a magazine article. Doesn’t matter if it’s trash. Because it’s still writing, and that’s what matters.
It seems pretty absurd to state that a writer is a person who writes, but it’s a concept I can just as easily let go of as grasp. It doesn’t take much for me to read about writing and think I’m writing, or go to Staples and hang out with the notebooks and pens and call myself a writer. But it doesn’t work that way.
Because a writer writes.
So it’s a thousand words for me. Every day. Period. Because I need that discipline. That reminder. But like I said—that sounds like a lot more than it really is.
The thing is this:
There are days when those words gush forth from that mysterious place inside me like water from a fire hose. When I have long hours to sit and ponder and sink into my desk. When the sun falls through open windows and warms my room and heaven itself pours buckets of inspiration over my head.
Those days are rare. Exceedingly so.
More often than not those thousand words are stretched out from around six in the morning until one the next morning. Rather than gushing from me, they have to be cajoled and, in come cases, dragged into the light. Most come in those precious few minutes between one thing at work and another or between dinner and second grade homework. They come when I sink myself into my desk not out of comfort, but exhaustion. When the moon shines against draped and curtained windows and cools my room. When inspiration comes in slow drips like sap from a tree.
That’s the norm, whether you’re working on your fifth novel or your fifth blog post. Which is why your decision shouldn’t be I want to be a successful writer or I want to be published, it should be this and this alone:
I am going to write.
The decision to write isn’t like a New Years resolution. It’s a daily choice. A matter of the will rather than circumstance. Because trust me, once that choice is made the universe itself will align against you in an all-out attempt to keep you from doing just that. There will be appointments and chores and Things To Do. There will be children tugging at your sleeve and spouses tugging at your ear. There will be jobs and responsibilities, dusty tables and shelves, and a dishwasher that just has to be emptied.
You’ll be tempted to think, If I do those things and help those people, then I can sit and write.
Don’t fall for that. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because there will always be things to do and people to help.
If writing teaches you nothing else, it will teach you this: sometimes you have to be selfish. Your family won’t understand and neither will your friends, and that’s okay. It comes with the territory. At its core writing is a lonely task steeped in irony—in order to share yourself with the world, you must at times remove yourself from it.
Though my workdays are normally filled with all the commotion and stress that a thousand college students can generate, the days between June and mid-August are mine alone to enjoy. It’s only slightly ironic and more than a little unexpected to me that summer break means even more to me now than it did when I was in school, but it’s true. Never let it be said that a little separation between yourself and others is a bad thing.
Despite the fact I have plenty to keep myself busy, I also have plenty of time to myself. Time that will be spent writing. Which is what I tried to do just a bit ago, and with unfortunate results.
I had just started typing when the buzzing began. First in one ear and then the other and then back again. My right thumb punched downward on the space bar and trampolined my hand upward, waving through the air.
“Stupid fly,” I muttered.
The buzzing returned, and this time the fly actually bounced itself off my head. More waving. More missing. Then the creature circled around and landed right on top of my computer screen, staring at me.
Black, juicy one. Hairy legs and monstrous eyes. And a wingspan that seemed almost unnatural.
Where it had been and how it had gotten into my office escaped me, and I really didn’t care. All that mattered was that I went back to work. I shooed it away and went back to my typing.
Against my head again.
I wheeled my chair around and swiped at it, missing the fly but not the stack of books on the opposite table, all of which tumbled to the floor.
“Dang it, you come back HERE!,” I yelled. “I’m gonna KILL YOU!!”
I roamed around my office for the next five minutes. Found nothing, of course. No buzzing, and no kamikaze attacks. So I sat back down and started writing. Four paragraphs later,
And then after that SMACK!, it stuck. To my head. And I swear, I swear to you, that fly made a beeline toward my ear. I was convinced it was going to burrow in and eat my brain.
I jumped up, slapping at my head and flailing my arms in every direction. The fly somehow managed to retreat back to whatever hell it came from and left me alone. For the moment.
But I knew it would be back. Oh yes, I knew. Which is why I put on my cowboy hat (to prevent any future burrowing) and started to fake type.
Two minutes later, buzzing again. And just at that moment I transformed myself into some strange Jedi/Mr. Miyagi/redneck hybrid, sliced through the air with an open palm—
The fly tumbled backward through the air and crashed against the far wall.
That was five minutes ago.
I’m back at my computer now. Order has been restored. But now I’m suffering through the fits and stops of trying to write, because every sentence I’m trying to type is interrupted by more buzzing.
The fly is still alive, though just barely.
It managed to right itself a bit ago by flopping back onto its legs, but it can’t do much else. Every attempt to take to flight has been both paltry and meaningless.
And now I feel guilty.
There are certain religious adherents who would say I sinned a bit ago, that every creature is worthy of respect and life and that by denying those things to them I deny them to myself. Others would say the sin was letting both haste and anger lead me to do something I now regret.
I suppose a sort of atonement is called for now, though I’m not sure what the proper course of action is. Should I walk over and euthanize it with my boot. Or should I try to nurse it back to health with small tweezers and bits of rancid meat? I’m not sure.
I am sure of this, though. We can try to model our lives to the Good, to walk straight and never wander, to be our very best selves. And sometimes that will work. But who we truly are deep down in our broken souls will always be there, ready in an instant to bare its teeth.
That is, I suppose, why we are all three people in one—there’s the person we want to be, the person we are, and the person who must daily choose which way to lean.
Yesterday morning I left the comfort and security of my home town and drove to the bustling metropolis of Richmond, Virginia. The purpose of my visit was an interview on WTVR Channel 6’s Virginia This Morning. I was a nervous wreck, but the folks couldn’t have been nicer.